Reprint: Exodus of lecturers in NUS department, discontinued modules worry students

Posted on January 19, 2019 by

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This article was recently published in TODAYonline in Singapore.  One or more of the universities involved are pressuring the government to have it taken down.  I reprint it here in case that happens.

Link to original article: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/exodus-lecturers-nus-department-worries-students-modules-discontinued

keywords: NUS, NTU, Singapore, academic freedom

By FARIS MOKHTAR

SINGAPORE — A spate of resignations among lecturers — eight in as many months — at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) communications and new media department has resulted in some modules being discontinued, causing anxiety among some students.

That prompted some to change their majors, while others scrambled at the eleventh hour to find the right thesis supervisors to guide them after those with relevant expertise departed. The undergraduates who did not manage to do so had to change their thesis topics.

According to five former NUS lecturers TODAY spoke to, the resignations began in April this year in the midst of a handover between the outgoing head of department Professor Mohan Dutta — who resigned in March and left NUS in June — and his successor Prof Audrey Yue.

Prof Yue, a Singaporean who previously taught at the University of Melbourne before joining NUS in July 2017, officially assumed the post on June 13.

Currently, there are about 18 lecturers left in the communications and new media department, including Prof Yue.

A spokesperson from NUS’ faculty of arts and social sciences (FASS) said in an email response to TODAY that they are unable to share details of staff departures for “confidentiality reasons” and that faculty members leave “for a variety of reasons”. Some have returned to the industry, while others have accepted new positions at other universities, said the spokesperson.

“Such movements are consistent with wider staffing trends and all staff departures are filled in a timely manner,” added the spokesperson.

Some students from the communications and new media department said they have felt the brunt of the departures.

Fourth-year undergraduate Emily Eng, 22, told TODAY that an issue for final-year students such as herself was finding the right thesis supervisor. In previous years, her seniors would be mentored by supervisors whom they had known for some time and had relevant expertise to their thesis topics, she said.

However, this was not the case for her in May when she wanted to work on a thesis relating to journalism and news, but the lecturer who could guide her was “on the way out”. “There was so much uncertainty about who was still left in the department,” she added.

Ms Eng, who is pursuing a double degree in business and communications, was eventually assigned a postdoctoral fellow as her supervisor and had to change her thesis topic to feminism and pornography.

“Both thesis topics are interests of mine, so it’s not a downgrade,” she said.

Three other students, who requested for anonymity for fear of “repercussions”, said that they found out in the new semester year beginning August that the “more interesting elective modules” had been discontinued. These were related to social media, photography, videography and news writing. One of the students, a second-year female undergraduate, 20, said it was “unfair that juniors like me studying journalism could not take up those modules”.

Dr Nancy Mauro Flude, 43, a former assistant professor at the department who resigned in April and left NUS two months later, said that the resignations and discontinuation of modules prompted a “handful” of students to change their majors from communications to South-east Asian studies.

“They were distressed,” said Dr Flude, who joined the department in 2016. The Australian is now a senior lecturer in digital media at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Former assistant professor Andrew Quitmeyer, 32, said that as the department was “rapidly emptying out”, he advised his PhD student to “talk to other universities and prepare a backup in case our department completely crumbled and she couldn’t graduate somehow”.

He eventually devised a plan to resign in August which would allow him to help his student finish her dissertation while he was serving three months’ notice.

The NUS FASS spokesperson said that its existing and new staff joining in 2019 would “adequately support the students whose thesis supervisors have left”.

EMAIL TO STUDENTS

Following the resignations, the department was abuzz with speculation that the modules were discontinued largely due to the departures.

But this was dismissed by Prof Yue and deputy head, Associate Professor Zhang Weiyu, in an email — which TODAY obtained a copy of — sent to students on Dec 4.

They noted that lecturers who had quit taught a total of 35 modules, without specifying the number of lecturers who resigned. While they acknowledged that there are “short-term teaching gaps left by these staff”, the department “rested only three modules”.

“In addition, in spite of a slight reduction in the number of modules offered, we have increased the quota size for all existing modules,” said Prof Yue and Assoc Prof Zhang. However, students were not informed in the email on the total number of modules discontinued.

Students who spoke to TODAY said that there has been an “informal survey” to gather students’ feedback and concerns. The department also conducted two focus group meetings with students at the end of November to hear them out. Some of the concerns raised included content overlaps and these findings will also be shared at a town hall, said Prof Yue and Assoc Prof Zhang in the email.

WHY MODULES WERE CUT

Former lecturers said the department had offered close to 130 modules during Prof Dutta’s tenure. After Prof Yue took over, 75 modules — or over half of them — were discontinued.

After students raised concerns over the adequacy of options, the number of modules axed was reduced to 56. Majority of the modules were discontinued, while a few were merged.

The final tally of 56 modules axed was stated in a Dec 4 internal proposal titled “Curriculum Review and Update” which TODAY obtained a copy of. It was vetted by Prof Yue and submitted to the Board of Undergraduate Studies for approval.

The proposal said that the 56 courses were no longer offered and would officially take effect from August 2019. The proposal also listed the new tally of modules that will be offered — 73.

The discontinued modules included news reporting and editing, smart cities, digital media and political communication, as well as photography, visual rhetoric and public culture.

The NUS FASS spokesperson said Prof Yue is “leading the efforts of the department in the refreshing of a curriculum that will benefit our undergraduates and prepare them well for their future careers”.

The course content will be updated to current academic and industry trends, and streamlined “to provide students with more choices, breadth and depth in their education”. This is also in line with the “ongoing review and improvement to module offerings” across the faculty’s different departments, said the spokesperson.

Conducted in consultation with its industry advisory council members and key Government stakeholders, the curriculum review also identified modules that have not been recently offered for removal, and those that overlapped in content will be combined and enhanced in response to student feedback and industry advice, said the faculty spokesperson.

New modules being proposed include those on social media marketing, digital humanities, computational communications, cultural policy, post-colonial media, design informatics, user experience design, human computational interaction, and digital journalism.

One former lecturer who requested anonymity said: “To be fair, yes, perhaps some modules are outdated. But they should properly evaluate the curriculum and not make impulsive changes. How does removing a module on digital media help students keep up with the times?”

Another former lecturer who also requested anonymity added that it was “baffling” to call the curriculum outdated as it was designed based on consultations with experts in the fields of media and communications.

Aside from having to deal with the “stifling climate” at the university, former lecturers said they were also unhappy with the uncertainty about the department’s direction. There was also greater scrutiny of their work, teaching materials and the textbooks they procured.

Dr Flude said that an administrative staff started asking “bizarre questions” about her books, while Dr Quitmeyer said that after Prof Dutta left, lecturers were given speeches “about how the old guard in the department led us astray, and the new guard will solve our problems”.

Prof Dutta had joined the department in 2012 before departing for New Zealand’s Massey University in June, after being appointed the Dean’s Chair Professor of Communication.

In March, Prof Dutta was in the news after his invitation to Singaporean media professor Cherian George — who is based in Hong Kong – to give a talk at NUS was delayed due to administrative “oversight”.

While the former lecturers were disappointed to leave behind their students, they noted that the environment was “too unbearable”.

“I pray that somehow NUS fixes itself to embrace their own talents instead of chasing metrics and chasing the pointless prestige of others,” said Dr Quitmeyer.

“NUS will never be able to buy prestige, but unfortunately they seem to be doubling down on this approach.”

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